The hospitality industry in Rome and Floyd County has been in the spotlight in recent weeks, some of it not quite as positive as hoteliers in the community might like.
The situation with a proposed Sleep Inn at the entrance to the Summerville Park neighborhood, coupled with plans by Berry College to develop its own hotel adjacent to the Rome Tennis Center at Berry College, has resulted in multiple questions about the need for more hotel rooms in Rome.
Many of the existing hotel franchisees have lamented the number of vacancies during the week, while event promoters worry about the availability of rooms on many weekend nights.
It is a difficult tightrope to walk if you’re Lisa Smith, the executive director of the Georgia’s Rome Office of Tourism.
Currently, according to the Georgia’s Rome Office of Tourism, the community has 947 rooms with 16 inn and Bed and Breakfast rooms in Cave Spring.
Penny Miller, general manager of the Hampton Inn & Suites, 875 W. First St., said, “Until we have tennis tournaments lined up for every single day of the year, we don’t need more rooms.”
City officials in Rome lobbied for years to bring a hotel to West Third Street to complement the Forum River Center. Finally, Duke Hospitality responded and built the Courtyard by Marriott. A trend in the conference and meeting industry for many years has been the development of a massive hotel/meeting facility in the same shared space.
Think World Congress Center in Atlanta, or perhaps the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center in Nashville.
Rome is not even remotely comparing itself, from a convention-host standpoint, to Atlanta or Nashville, but the same concept applies to smaller groups that might consider holding their meetings in Rome.
Think Jehovah’s Witnesses meetings that have been held at the Forum River Center. Participants can easily walk to the Forum from the Days Inn, Hampton Inn & Suites, Courtyard by Marriott or Hawthorn Suites.
Miller said that bringing the Hampton flag from its former location off Chateau Drive to downtown has been a difference-maker.
“When you stay in Atlanta or bigger cities you don’t want to have to get back in your car and drive somewhere where you don’t know where you’re going, and it’s the same thing here. Broad Street has so much to offer to outside people,” said Miller at the Hampton property.
Ira Levy, lead owner for the Hawthorn Suites at West First Street and East Second Avenue, has added on to the Hawthorn once and is planning a second addition to take the hotel up to 100 rooms. Levy is still in the process of getting the budget right for the next addition.
“I’m revising it so I am not spending $8 million. We’re not full,” Levy said. He pointed out that the Courtyard and Hampton, that are new to the downtown area, have probably taken some of the traffic away from the Hawthorn and other hotels.
While Levy is committed to the next addition, he said that as of yet, he still hasn’t seen a big increase in convention business in Rome since the Hampton and Courtyard brought additional rooms within walking distance of the Forum River Center.
The Hawthorn property is primarily used by business travelers who tend to spend multiple nights while making sales calls across the Northwest Georgia region. “We don’t have the swimming pool and all that other stuff, we prefer the business clientele,” Levy said.
“When I go to out-of-state meetings to talk with convention planners, one of the top criteria is to have enough beds within walking distance,” said Thomas Kislat, a marketing specialist at the Forum. He just hosted a group out of Texas that is looking to bring more than 200 physicians to Rome for a week next year.
“They were just in awe of how beautiful everything is downtown,” Kislat said.
The community is still waiting on details of the Berry hotel project at the tennis center. This weekend the tennis center is hosting the USTA Girls 14 & under National Championships. The tournament features 192 of the top teens and pre-teens, who obviously don’t even have a driver’s license yet. They are not here by themselves. Most have at least one parent and/or a coach with them. One of the most frequent comments one hears from adults in town with the youngsters is that they wish there was a nice hotel closer to the courts.
How do you define a “nice” hotel? You certainly start with a national flag whether it is a Marriott property or a Hilton or a Wyndham or Choice property. Look for the Berry property to raise one of those flags and wave it strongly.
Ann Hortman, director of the Rome Sports Commission in the tourism office, reports that a shortage of premium rooms (upscale properties) has resulted in the loss of events that Rome could easily accommodate, such as huge track and field competitions and other team tournaments, to larger markets.
Kislat said that a good mix of brands within the hotel industry is also beneficial because many travelers are very loyal to specific flags.
“It is still hard to accommodate extra big events,” Kislat said. “You have the geocaching group here (Oct. 2-6) with more than 600 people. Something like the Schnauzerfest (Sept. 27-28) is a good example. He’s bringing more than 600 people from 44 states.”
Hugh Tyner, a marketing exec with Schnauzerfest, said people are already having to book rooms for the Schnauzerfest as far away as Dalton to get close to Rome for the event.
Additional flagged hotel rooms, in relative proximity to the tennis center, are key to the tennis center being able to attract more of those tournaments with 250 to 400 or more players. That is precisely what the center was built for, to serve as an economic driver for the community.
That’s also part of why the controversial Sleep Inn was proposed for the Summerville Park community.
How long has the U.S. 411 East corridor been the heartbeat of Rome’s hotel industry? Remember the old Skytop Holiday Inn. For many years, it was the facility that may have come the closest to that conference center/hotel in one package. The industry grew up in the shadow of the Skytop. Look at the hotels still out in that area. There’s a Country Inn & Suites, a Holiday Inn Express, Red Roof Inn & Suites, Rome Inn & Suites, LaQuinta, Comfort Suites, Econo Lodge and Quality Inn, all within the radius of about half-a-mile.
The new Sleep Inn was originally slated to go out in the same area, however the original franchisee died unexpectedly before construction ever got started. Tony Patel was able to acquire rights to the “flag” and opted to move it to the other side of town. Its status is still in limbo.
As times change, hotels have wanted to become a little closer to where the action is, and in Rome the action is, for the most part anyway, downtown or at the tennis center or on one of the college campuses.
The availability of additional rooms will become an even bigger deal when the Atlantic Coast Conference tennis championships return to Rome next April. Of the 15 schools in the ACC, all participate in men’s tennis except Pitt and Syracuse. Bring 13 collegiate teams to town, along with their fan base — not to be confused with football or basketball in size — and the need for rooms becomes apparent.
Smith in the tourism office said the money that is brought in by visitors stays in the community and is where the economics of tourism works for the entire community.
“It pays salaries in the hospitality industry (hotels and restaurants) and beyond,” Smith said. Hotel and motel taxes help finance the tourism office as well as marketing efforts at the Forum River Center.
And don’t forget the $5 surcharge on rooms that goes to the Georgia DOT and is helping improve highways all over the region.